By Jesse Sternberg
I have identified as bisexual since I was about 15 years old. I realized that I had never really looked at boys and girls in a fundamentally different way. I never went through a “girls are gross” phase when I was little; I’d always had girls for friends, and I realized I’d always had crushes on boys as well as girls that I’d mistaken for just strong friendships.
When I was beginning to explore the LGBTQ scene, dating both men and women in my late teens, gay men would often respond to my self-identification with stories of how they were bi once for a month in high school, or otherwise refuse to take it at face value. This led to a brief period when I wondered if I might be gay and going through a similar transitional phase, too. If I was able to deceive myself for years into thinking I wasn’t attracted to men, I thought maybe I’d been deceiving myself into thinking I was attracted to women as well. Then I realized that I really only had this thought because of the social pressure to conform to a label, and that if I was just honest with my feelings, bi was still what worked for me.
When I became serious with my current (female, also queer-identifying) partner, many people in my life suddenly shifted gears into assuming that it was my past experiences with men that were a “phase.” Though they never said so directly, my parents, to whom I’d come out about 2 years before, seemed happy to chalk it all up to liberal arts school experimentation. At best, many people seemed to think that my long term relationship with a woman made me straight for all intents and purposes, and didn’t understand why this identity was still important to me.
I think the root of bi-phobia and the tendency toward bi-erasure is the idea that the existence of a “bi” identity threatens both gay and straight identities. On one side, closeted queer people and insecure straight people alike rely on the assumption that if you are attracted to the opposite gender, you are by definition “not queer.” Asserting a straight identity becomes infinitely more difficult if you need to deny attraction to the same sex as well as demonstrate attraction to the opposite. On the other side, gay and lesbian people are dogged by perceptions that their identities are a “phase” they can outgrow or overcome with effort. Acknowledging the possibility that people can experience same-sex attraction and still have opposite-sex relationships can feel like lending credence to that idea, and destabilizing the idea of “gay” or “lesbian” as identities.
Recognizing “bi” as identity does not imply that “gay/lesbian” or “straight” don’t exist or that “everybody is secretly bi,” just that they are opposite ends of a spectrum rather than a binary. When people are confused by the idea of the Kinsey Scale or the idea of sexuality as a spectrum, I tell them to think about characteristics like “hot” and “cold.” Nobody would say that “hot” and “cold” don’t exist as categories, but they would acknowledge that there is a whole spectrum of temperature in between them and that their boundaries are completely subjective.
After all of these denials from all sides, I still find “bi” to be the label that suits me best—though I also like to use “queer” as an umbrella term for the whole community—and I think this identity and my past experiences inform a lot of my musical tastes, my politics, and who I am as a person. Simply not making gender the single biggest factor in how I relate to a person has shaped my understanding of feminist and trans issues. My past experiences with homophobic street harassment make that issue more personal to me than for straight people, even though I no longer deal with it on a day-to-day basis. And all of this drives my songwriting, which strives to frame political issues using personal narratives.
One of my newest songs, “June, 1969,” indirectly tells the story of the Stonewall riots through the fictional story of a gay former resident of the Village. He returns to visit an old friend directly after the riots and finds him, and the neighborhood, transformed. Street harassment and discrimination are not absent (obviously, even now, 45 years later, they still aren't), but the people have a changed spirit, a new-found willingness to stand up and defend their rights with physical self-defense if necessary.
I could still write a song that made a political statement about LGBTQ rights if I were a straight ally, but I think my queer identity drives my desire to frame them in this very personal way, and I would bet there are a lot of bi/pan/fluid/queer artists out there with similar perspectives to share who have difficulty overcoming the social pressure to conform to rigid identities of “gay” and “straight.” I want to encourage all of these people to speak out, because the more we make ourselves known, the more people will become aware of how ubiquitous LGBTQ people really are, and the faster things will change.
Jesse Sternberg is the singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Brooklyn-based folk-punk band, Out of System Transfer, a politically active band that sings about LGBTQ rights, as well as police brutality, climate change, and other issues that affect the people of New York City, the nation, and the planet. Find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.